David Lee joined the exclusive club of New Zealand Oscar winners in 2021, when he won the Academy Award for Visual Effects for his role as Digital Effects Supervisor on the visually mind-warping Tenet. The Canterbury-raised creative has worked all over the world on some of the biggest movie franchises in history and remains in high demand. But he was no overnight success. Lee has some words of wisdom for his younger self - and any creatives ready to embark on their career adventure.
And don’t give up that musical instrument. It only takes 10 minutes a day to form that habit that will take you through life, and as you get better, you won’t even notice that it’s now an hour a day.
I started learning the piano whenIi was in primary school and could never quite find the time to practise once I entered high school. I’m only now picking this up again, and would probably be a professional pianist by now if I had kept going.
Or at least be able to finish Fur Elise…
They require just as much work as your career. And they really are the reason we are all here. The support they give you can’t be beaten.
Whether it’s your friends, your partner, or your family, they will always be there to pick you up when you need it. They make life so much more joyful.
It means you're doing something new. That leads to pushing yourself forwards. I still feel scared, but have learnt to embrace it, as it now means I’m on the first step of getting better at something.
It means I’m pushing the limits of my comfort. And once I feel comfortable doing it, it’s a very satisfying feeling…well, more relief really. And then on to the next challenge!
Leaving New Zealand to adventure out on my own was terrifying, but my subsequent adventures have led me to some brilliant places and experiences. And don’t forget to let the ones coming up behind you know that you were scared at the same point they are at now. It’s always nice when you're younger to know you’re not alone in how you feel.
David Lee (third from left) receiving his Academy Award with fellow London-based winners Andy Lockley, Andrew Jackson and Christopher Hampton. Photo: Supplied.
No-one else is watching you as intensely as you are.
Except your mum. She totally is.
So the next time you screw up at work, don’t have a sleepless night. The next morning you will probably be the only one who remembers it.
Learn from it.
When I first joined DNEG, I got given the opportunity to work on a concept for a new sequence. After a stressful week working it up, the deadline came, and the shot was not sent. I was crushed and felt like I had let the supervisor down. Reluctantly going into work the next day, feeling like I was going to be tarnished by my failure, no-one said a thing. It turned out the real deadline wasn’t for another week, and there was no honest expectation we would have been able to hit the original target in the first place.
The important thing was that I gave it my all.
It’s about moving through it, and enjoying it. You don’t need to know what you want to do straight out of school. Allow yourself time to find out what options you have, because the world is a big place, and there are loads more choices than you know.
I started off studying science, moved into hospitality, and finally into visual effects. But everything I experienced made me the person I am today. I’d be different without all my choices.
They make you, well, you. And that's the best thing of all.
David Lee speaking remotely to his studio-based team from on set. Photo: Supplied.